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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
BYU's #33 Nate Austin grimaces in pain while holding his left arm, Austin injured his arm while trying to block an alley oop dunk by Buffalo's #30 Titus Robinson as BYU and Buffalo play Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 in Provo at the Marriott Center. BYU won 93-78.
Gonzaga lost to us here, so they're going to be hungry. Before that, they lost to us in the NCAA Tournament, so they'll be even more hungry for us. —Nate Austin

Things can turn around quickly in the West Coast Conference.

Just over a week ago, it appeared St. Mary's had the league title wrapped up and Gonzaga and BYU were second and third, respectively. It seemed an unshakable pecking order. Then everyone started losing but BYU.

Thursday night in Spokane the Cougars and 'Zags play for what could be a piece of the league title with St. Mary's if the Gaels lose at San Francisco, a team that beat the 'Zags last Saturday.

"It does give us motivation," said BYU junior guard Craig Cusick. "To be back in the picture does something for us."

Gonzaga is favored to defeat the Cougars Thursday night. That doesn't mean BYU isn't without some momentum. BYU's five-game win streak is the best in the WCC. The Cougars have the best overall road record (8-2) among the teams in the WCC, Pac-12 and MWC. New Mexico is 7-2, St. Mary's 6-3, Oregon 6-4 and Arizona 7-4.

Unlike recent road trips in the WCC, the Cougars take on Gonzaga more banged up than usual with Noah Hartsock, the league's leading scorer, nursing a knee sprain.

If Hartsock is unable to perform, or is limited in his mobility, BYU coach Dave Rose will need others to step up, including his third post player, former Lone Peak star Nate Austin.

This time a year ago, Austin was an LDS missionary in McAllen, Texas. Things can turn around quickly. For Austin, this mission thing certainly did.

"I've got better quicker than I expected. The coaches and trainers have really helped me to get in shape but I am surprised my body has been able to hold up and I've played as well as I have," said Austin.

"It's been a dream come true to play for BYU. It's something I've wanted to do all my life and every day I come out and want to make the most of it."

The rookie has played in all 29 games and is 51 for 89 from the field, a 57 percent shooting mark that is the best on the team. He averages 3.7 rebounds, 4.4 points a game, and has 11 blocked shots. He has made 6 of 17 from beyond the arc as a 6-foot-11 center/forward.

"All season, all I've looked at is to come in and have a positive role for the team," said Austin when asked about Hartsock's injury. He thinks it will be no different Thursday night if he's called upon to contribute.

"My role this year hasn't been to score all the points, which I'm fine with. It's been more about playing good defense, taking charges and getting rebounds. If I'm asked to do more than that, I still have to do all those things in order to fill my role and make positive plays for the team."

You get the feeling a little more might be needed from Austin tonight against the 'Zags. He certainly knows more will be required from not only him, but from everyone on the team.

"Gonzaga lost to us here, so they're going to be hungry," said Austin after a Marriott Center practice this week. "Before that, they lost to us in the NCAA Tournament, so they'll be even more hungry for us."

Austin, albeit young, knows exactly what is at stake Thursday night and what the 'Zags will bring.

"When we be beat them here, we played perhaps our best overall game all year. For 40 minutes we really played together. To have a chance to win, we'll have to give that same effort offensively and defensively; that same intensity. They'll have their home crowd behind them and we won't have the fan support we had here. We'll need to be locked in.

"Our coaches have a good game plan and hopefully we can come out and play like we need to."

Austin says Thursday night's Zag-Coug game is what you play for.

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"We're right in the hunt. If we keep playing well, good things can happen, we might get a share of the championship."

Sniffing at a title does motivate, said Austin, but ever since the Cougars lost the second time to St. Mary's, they've been very motivated every day to get better in practice.

"I think that loss motivated us to get better and somehow make it to the NCAA Tournament. That now because of Gonzaga and St. Mary's losses last week, we have a chance to get a piece of the title, gives us just that much more to play for."

email: dharmon@desnews.com

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